Her Majesty’s principal secretary of state for foreign and Commonwealth affairs is one of the four great offices of state in British politics, a post usually filled by one of the few politicians most of the country can name (not at the moment, mind, but we’ll come back to that). Britain likes to play an outsized role in the world: a permanent member of the UN Security Council; a leading player in the G7, G20, IMF and World Bank. Name a global institution and there will be a British diplomat at the top table.
Yet when Britain’s election campaign officially begins later this month the world beyond the white cliffs of Dover will hardly feature at all. Foreign policy may be important once a government has been elected but it plays almost no role whatsoever in deciding what sort of government that is.
Over the past five years the UK has led a Nato campaign that helped rebels oust a dictator in Libya, as well as voting in favour of bombing Isis targets in Iraq and against bombing Assad’s regime in Syria. Closer to home it has backed EU sanctions against Russia, decided to stop funding for ships that save migrants crossing the Mediterranean and begun a debate on the future of the EU. The Foreign Office has been remodelled, favouring trade over human rights, bending over backwards to persuade China to invest in the UK and, despite the Arab uprisings, happily selling arms to autocratic Gulf states.
Every single one of these policies – and there are many more – are worthy of debate yet the only one certain to come up over the next seven weeks (and it will, again and again) is Britain’s relationship with the EU.
Britain’s current attitude towards the rest of the world is epitomised by David Cameron’s underwhelming choice of foreign secretary. Philip Hammond has pledged to turn the Foreign Office into the “British Office”, an organisation that thinks only of how the world affects Britain rather than how Britain can affect the world. It is the view of a man, a political party and arguably a nation that views the outside world with suspicion.
That may play well at the polls. Whether it’s Vladimir Putin or immigrants, the only way the rest of the world will get a mention during this election campaign is as a bogeyman.
After 7 May, Britain – whoever is elected – will try to once again play the role of statesman. But each time we go through this process a bit more of the country’s prestige is chipped away.
Steve Bloomfield is Monocle’s executive editor.